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Review: Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 (2017)

Directed by: Brian Fee

Premise: An animated film in which automobiles are people. After years as a racer, Lightening McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) struggles to keep up with younger and faster cars. He enlists a trainer (voice of Cristela Alonzo) to stage a career comeback.

What Works: Cars 3 is a successful rebound after the disaster that was Cars 2. The new film is consistent with the tone and story of the original Cars and it plays as a direct sequel to the 2006 picture. One of the most remarkable qualities of Pixar’s movies has been the quality of the animation. Pixar continues to distinguish itself among Hollywood animation studios and Cars 3 has some great looking visuals. The detail and texture of the automotive characters and their world is very impressive. The film includes some clever visual in-jokes and the racing action is as exciting as a live action movie. Another standout quality of Pixar’s films has been stories that break out of traditional plot formulas or at least put a new spin on a familiar format. This is where Cars 3 is most impressive. The first Cars film adhered to clichés; a narcissistic celebrity got stuck in a small town and learned the values of kindness and humility. Cars 2 attempted to do something different in the Pixar canon—it was intended as a comic spin on mistaken identity thrillers like North By Northwest—but the concept didn’t mesh well with the story world and it was executed terribly. The filmmakers of Cars 3 appear to have learned from the mistakes of the previous movies. In one respect, Cars 3 returns to the familiar locales and characters of the original film. It could be regarded as a creative retreat but the filmmakers take the story in some unexpected directions and Cars 3 has some of the self-awareness of Toy Story 3. The story acknowledges the passage of time and the age of the characters. Lightening McQueen has lost his mentor Doc Hudson and he competes against younger drivers who have cutting edge training regimens. McQueen’s solution is to try these new techniques under the guidance of younger trainer Cruz Ramirez. When that doesn’t work he goes back to basics by tracking down Smokey (voice of Chris Cooper), the aged former trainer of Doc Hudson. Along the way he rediscovers his competitive spirit. A lazier movie would reenact the original Cars and a pandering movie would reaffirm cornball platitudes that any obstacle can be overcome by hard work and determination. Cars 3 does something else. The movie is about coming to terms with age and learning to adapt to life changes. In that respect, Cars 3 is a more mature film than either of its predecessors. For that matter, it is more mature than most Hollywood films and it communicates truths in ways that are soothing rather than depressing.

What Doesn’t: Cars 3 focuses on Lightning McQueen to the exclusion of virtually everyone else in the movie. Some of the familiar characters return such as Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally (voice of Bonnie Hunt) but the filmmakers aren’t interested in them. By marginalizing the returning characters, Cars 3 removes Lightening McQueen from the relationships that made the first movie emotionally resonant and Mater feels shoehorned into the picture as a way of appeasing children and selling toys. The new characters don’t fare much better. Trainer Cruz Ramirez doesn’t have much of a personality and her character design is uninspired. Smokey is a generic mentor type and he doesn’t have the personality or backstory that Doc did in the first film. Lightening McQueen finds a new sponsor in mud flap entrepreneur Sterling (voice of Nathan Fillion) but Sterling doesn’t get enough screen time or plot participation to play much of a role in the story.

Bottom Line: Cars 3 is the best film in its franchise but this is a middle tier Pixar production. It has the high quality of animation that the studio is known for and it shares some wisdom about aging gracefully. But Cars 3 sacrifices characterization in a way that destabilizes the story.

Episode: #653 (June 25, 2017)